Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “Ministering with Authority”

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Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMIRecently, inside church circles, a debate took place as to whether Therese of Lisieux should be named a “doctor” of the church. Her proponents pointed to her influence within the faith and argued that few theologians or writers, at least not within the last century, have touched as many lives as Therese. Another constituency argued against it: She died at 24, not exactly the age of wisdom. Moreover her writings consist of just three short manuscripts which, while moving and aesthetically exceptional, are hardly in the same theological league with Augustine, Aquinas, Rahner, Barth, or Tillich. Nor do her writings, in terms of academics, measure up to the standards demanded even of graduate- level students in our theological institutions. So why declare her a “doctor”?

We know who won this argument. Therese is today a “doctor” of the church. A wise choice. Why? Because doctors heal people and her writings have healed persons in a way that many other writings that are academically and theologically superior have not. That’s not to say that the writings of the academy of theology don’t have their place, but it is to say that the power to heal depends upon things beyond brilliance, learning, professional standards, and authority or position.

We see that clearly already in the gospels. We’re told there that Jesus “spoke with authority, unlike the scribes and the pharisees” (many of whom were, no doubt, brilliant, learned, and sincere). What set Jesus’ teaching apart? Its effect. He cured people and changed their lives in a way none of the other preachers and teachers of his time could. The word of God coming from his mouth simply affected things in a way that this same word coming from other mouths didn’t. His words made sick people healthy, made sinners change their lives, and even brought some dead people back to life. As a teacher or preacher, I can only envy that!

And envy it I do! Allow me a little self-indulgence. I will offer a personal reflection here, not because I think that my teaching and preaching are exceptional, but rather, the opposite, because I sense myself as typical, the norm. So here’s the reflection:

I’ve been in the business of teaching and preaching for thirty years and, from the normal indicators, have been successful enough. I’m in demand as a speaker, my writings are popular, and I receive my share of affirmation and compliments. After speaking to congregations and various audiences, I generally sense a positive reaction. So far so good.

What I don’t sense is that I speak “with authority”, even when people do positively affirm me in words. Why do I say that? Because the longer I teach, preach, and write, the more sceptical I become about the effect of my efforts. I’m not sure that I ever say and do things “with authority”. I’ve never affected a physical cure, not that I’ve ever tried; never raised anyone from the dead, not that I’ve tried; and I wonder to what extent my teaching and writings have ever empowered anyone to truly convert and change his or her life morally. It’s one thing to be told you’re wonderful, it’s quite another to have someone actually change his or her life on the basis of your preaching.

That isn’t true for everybody. Mother Theresa used to go out on a stage, face a thousand people, say “God loves you!”, and everyone’s eyes would fill with tears and they would know that this, the deepest of all realities, was true. She spoke with authority. I envy her too. When I speak or write I still need an infinitely more complex message to have any effect.

There’s a lesson here, but its shouldn’t be misread. The lesson is this: Our preaching and teaching can be powerful and transformative, though not on the basis of brilliance, scholarship, or doctrinal accuracy. We can have all of these and still not speak with any authority, be brilliant and not change anything.

People will recognize us as speaking with authority only when they sense that, like Jesus, we are under divine authority ourselves, that our message is not our own, that our actual lives stand behind the message, that our words are meant to reveal God and not ourselves, that we love others enough to give up protecting ourselves, that our real concern is God’s kingdom and not how we impress others, that we consider the community bigger than ourselves, and that we are willing to sweat blood rather than get bitter or walk away.

I wonder whether our failure today to pass on our faith to our own children, to effect forgiveness and harmony within our families and communities, or to inspire others to any kind of religious vocation, isn’t predicated precisely on our incapacity to speak God’s word with authority. We can speak it with insight, accuracy, sensitivity, and even brilliance, but, too often, we can’t heal or really change anyone, including our own children.

The miracles we need, it would seem, aren’t wrought by brilliance alone.